Start Making Sense

Alias' creator tries--one more time--to make a hit out of a near miss

J.J. Abrams should have no time to talk about the past, not when before him lies an extraordinary amount of work due in the very near future--like, any second. The creator of Felicityand screenwriter of Armageddon is preparing a new series about bounty hunters for ABC, which will debut as a midseason replacement this year or in the fall of 2004. He also expects, within the next two weeks, for Warner Bros. to make an announcement regarding the fate of his Supermanscreenplay, which Charlie's Angels' McG is scheduled to direct. After so many retracted trade-paper announcements and ridiculous Web site speculation about who may don the blue tights, there may at last be tangible evidence The Man of Steel is no longer grounded by studio red tape (or red kryptonite, forgive me). Then Abrams must still oversee production of his Alias, which begins its third season on ABC on September 28--a few months, and two years, after Season Two wrapped. Two years, because that's how long CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) had been unconscious by the end of the season finale.

Yet here is Abrams, at the end of a phone line from his Los Angeles office, promoting not only a show in need of promoting but also the forthcoming Alias DVD boxed sets: The Season One collection arrives this week containing a handful of inevitable extras, among them a making-of documentary, while Season Two makes its debut in December. Abrams is working the DVDs for a very specific reason: How well they sell, and to whomthey sell, just may determine the fate of a would-be franchise that, in two seasons, has yet to draw viewers lured by the buzz. That's because Aliaswas from jump a ludicrously confusing series populated by good guys unknowingly working for bad guys, some of whom were actually good guys, including Sydney's dad. You missed one episode, and subsequent episodes were as inexplicable as the phrase "long-running series starring Jim Belushi."

Most TV shows get released on DVD for the fans, who can own a digital keepsake n a fancy case without commercial interruptions. They're loaded with the bonuses for fetishists: The forthcoming 24second-season collection contains hours' worth of deleted scenes, which turn one man's bad day into a very long week. But the AliasDVD also serves as a newfangled marketing tool, the key that unlocks a show so often referred to in the media as "Byzantine" you'd think it was set in the Roman empire.

"The premise of Alias was perfect for a DVD release, because if you are confused, if you have missed an episode, you've got it right there to see and can figure out the stuff that might confuse you if you decide that's something you want to do," Abrams says. "You can also watch them because they're fun and sexy and cool thrillers. The truth is, the spy genre is inherently a mystery and a complex genre, and our show had a double whammy: It also had good guys pretending they're bad guys with bad guys, some of whom didn't even know they were bad guys and almost all of them pretending they're good guys. The good guys let the bad guys do what they were doing, and I think it was confounding on top of the premise, the genre itself, which is inherently a mystery.

"I can see why the show was, for many people, impenetrable and was actually preventing us, the writers, from telling certain stories we were really interested in telling. It was sort of a perfect thing, because the issues that many viewers were having mirrored many of the problems we were having in trying to sort of reconcile the premise with certain stories we wanted to tell."

In other words, even the writers were baffled and bogged down by the first season's premise, which went a little something like this: Sydney's a grad student who works for SD-6, which she thinks is a secret organization within the CIA. Turns out, her boss, Arvin Sloan (Ron Rivkin), is actually a very bad guy using his agents to further his own agenda, which involves the prophetic creations of a 15th-century inventor named Milo Rambaldi. Syd discovers just whom she's working for when her estranged dad, Jack (Victor Garber), shows up and reveals that, yeah, he also works for SD-6 and that it's a bad place. After her fiance is killed by SD-6, Syd goes to the CIA and offers to work as a double agent--just like, turns out, her daddy.

Throw in some sexual tension with her CIA handler (Michael Vartan), a "dead" mommy who's actually a KGB baddie (Lena Olin), a best friend who's eventually killed by her double (Merrin Dungey) and other boogeyman nonsense, and you start to understand why it draws an average of 10 million viewers a week and resides in the lower half of the weekly Nielsen ratings. (It finished last season at No. 72 and has sunk even lower during the summer, where it draws some 3 million viewers and is routinely beaten by such cheerless novelties as Fox's Banzai and such creative failures as ABC's own Life With Bonnie.) It lives on only because it scores relatively well with the prized 18- to 49-year-old demographic--but even then, coming in at No. 44 with those folks won't keep a series on life support forever, no matter how many Maximand Entertainment Weeklycovers Jennifer Garner garners.

ABC fully expects the show to become the franchise the network expected from the get-go: At the end of July, ABC gave Garner an enormous raise (from $45,000 an episode to $150,000) and extended her contract through a seventh season. But if the show doesn't expand its audience soon, it's doubtful Aliaswill even last a fourth: Network executives, a notoriously timid lot beholden not to quality but quantity of viewers and ad dollars, are loath to stick with ratings bottom-feeders, even those beloved by critics and fans. Look no further than Andy Richter Controls the Universe or Firefly or any other recent cult hit that died in the arms of the few fanatics who loved them.

Part of the ratings blame can be placed at the feet of the ABC execs who scheduled The Wonderful World of Disneyor, lately, Sunday-night movies before Alias. "If you are an 8-year-old watching Toy Story, would you want to hang around and watch Alias?" says Riike Magnus, who runs the fan site www.secretlifeofalias.com from Portland, Oregon. "Would your parents even let you?" This season, ABC's rectifying that odd coupling by giving Aliasa new, more adult lead-in, the drama 10-8, about a "Brooklyn bad boy" who becomes a deputy sheriff trainee in Los Angeles--a sort of feel-good Training Day, from the sound of things.

But part of Alias' troubles can be blamed on the show itself, which wasn't only confusing but also troublingly daft. You could only watch for so long before wondering just why Sydney was doing the dirty work of men she knew to be evil, or how the supposedly brilliant Sloan never figured out Sydney was a double agent. Abrams rectified that during the second season in a highly touted episode that aired after the Super Bowl, in which SD-6 was destroyed. The show became less tangled in a narrative thread that looked more like a noose to newcomers, as the episode, appropriately titled "Phase One," was intended to bring in fresh eyes (mostly men lured in by the Syd-in-lingerie spots that ran during the game) without alienating longtime fans who had stuck with the show.

"My only problem with the Super Bowl episode was how much J.J. and ABC were making it so provocative just to get more viewers," says Magnus, whose site is part of a larger AliasWeb ring called The Alias Four. "I felt cheated in that respect...A lot of us were in disbelief at how easily they had SD-6 taken down. It just didn't seem...likely. And then with the takedown of SD-6, Sydney and Vaughn could get together, but that took out the whole angst angle of the show. But it also made me excited to think about all the possibilities that the show could now take. It set my mind a-whirling!"

Abrams feels the same way. He insists it took awhile for the show to find its voice; it was only after it had been on a while that he realized it was less about the plot machinations than the people ground up by them. Fact is, it became a better show in its second season, after the twists had been straightened out and the story became more about this twisted family of spies, none of whom trusts each other--a sort of paranoid Father Knows Best. Still, you have to wonder whether Abrams would have reformatted--refocused, really--the show had it been a huge ratings success. Was the retooling inevitable after he discovered what was best about the show, or was it just a necessity to keep it alive?

"Who knows," he says. "Obviously, had the thing been working, I think [the show] would have required some other stuff as well. If the show had been working on that level, my guess is that the what-if would also have to extend to, 'What if we had changed the premise in different ways earlier?' I think those two things might be related, but at the end of the day I can't be sure. There have been really terrific shows that have failed. There have been really abysmal shows that have succeeded. I don't know how to quantify something like that. All I can say is we try the best we can on a week-to-week basis to present the most compelling and engaging show, and that requires small and big decisions.

"When we did 'Phase One' and we took down SD-6, fans of the show said, 'Wait, you can't do that. It destroys everything we know.' But to me, it opened up these doors that allowed us to tell some of our more interesting stories and really go to the next level. I think that what you realize is, oh, yeah, it wasn't SD-6 that made the show work; it was Sydney versus Sloan. The show did, could and will go on and I think actually be more interesting and broaden the characters' experiences and their challenges and interactions...It's funny, because I feel like Season Three immediately is, for me, more fulfilling than both prior years. Episode to episode, I think there's a good understanding of what's happening. I think the greater specificity to the relationships makes the shows more engaging."

Abrams, and the generous network that keeps his show on the air, will find out September 29 if there are enough people who agree with him.

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